In 2007, while watching a televised Indian cricket match in his apartment in California, sports agent JB Bernstein was struck by a ridiculously innovative idea — to search for the next baseball pitcher in India. After weeks of negotiations with American investors, Bernstein landed in Mumbai to launch a TV reality contest called Million Dollar Arm. Though it initially sounded like a terrible misadventure, Bernstein took two potential pitchers —
Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh from Lucknow — with him to the US for tryouts for Major League Baseball (MLB), finally drafting them with the Pittsburgh Pirates. This resulted in a book Million Dollar Arm, (Simon & Schuster, Rs 399). A film on their lives and journey, by the same name — starring Jon Hamm of Mad Men fame and Suraj Sharma from Life of Pi — released yesterday in India. In an email interview, Bernstein shares his experiences of selecting the first MLB pitchers from India. Excerpts:
You were a successful sports agent in the US with four big-ticket players as your clients. Why did you want to leave all that behind to look for a baseball player in India?
I never saw Million Dollar Arm as leaving behind my sports business. I viewed it as a new layer, and the fact that India was 13 hours ahead of my home office, afforded me the opportunity to conduct business in both worlds. I worked the days in India, and the nights were left for my work back home.
What convinced you about India and its potential in giving a baseball pitcher since the game is not played here?
I would argue that the odds were in our favour. There are over 100 million men between the ages of 15 and 25 in India who are not really being scouted for any sport. At the time I came to India, even pro-cricket jobs were limited as the Indian Premier League was just launching. Outside of cricket there were no real sports opportunities. We knew that there had to be many natural athletes who did not even realise that they could throw a baseball. It would be like if there was no such thing as basketball in the US, then a guy like Michael Jordan would have no idea he was good at putting a ball through a hoop.
When you arrived in India were there moments you strongly felt that this was a bad idea?
Pitching a baseball is very hard. That is why the best professionals get paid millions of dollars a year. That being said, you see a lot of bad pitchers relative to good ones in any talent contest. We were lucky that on our very first day (of the contest) we saw a young man continued…